Surviving Elections à la Buddha

Election years are years of melodrama. Whenever the presidential election circles around, I swear I can measure in decibels and number of arguments how much scrappier we all become. A deluge of unkind television ads, radio rants, and vitriolic op-ed pieces fill the air. We’re exposed to so much mean-spiritedness that it seems to crawl under our own skins, somehow making us more mean-spirited as well. I watch opinions harden, including my own, and most of us say them out loud more often, since that’s what everybody else seems to be doing. In my family, I’m always struck by how we argue about small things more often. No one is safe.

Invariably, a family member will say, “Let’s turn off the television, and leave the radio on the classical music station until it’s all over.” But curiosity always kills the cat. Even in a media blackout, we still hear about the election’s goings-on from friends, on street corners, or in the line at the grocery store. And we want to know. At least I do. This is my country, after all. And like most everyone, I want to be proud of it — and of us. I want political leaders who will create a future that is brighter for our kids and grandkids than it appears to be as I write.
It turns out that Buddha offered a great teaching on just this problem — the one where we want to be involved and to know what is going on, without getting caught up in the grinchy grouchiness that seems to be in the water come election year. By the time Buddha had been teaching for ten years or so, everyone in the four contiguous kingdoms where he roamed knew who he was. Many people loved him. Thousands became his followers. Some disliked him. A few, starting with his cousin Devadatta, hated him and wanted him dead. He had to live with fake rumors implying that he was a god and additional gossip about his many sexual exploits (of which, in reality, there were none). Not a few people sought to publicly undermine this prince who had decided to ignore the established caste system by allowing people from all castes to become monks. One, a collector of human excrement, became one of his key disciples. Worse, he taught women directly. Even worse, he was a friend to courtesans. Worse yet, he argued with the local kings and Brahmins about everything from how they were ruling their territories to the need to respect their wives. The final insult was that every new monk Buddha attracted meant the loss of a healthy young man to a family and community.
At one point, a frustrated Brahmin named Bharadvaja, someone who surely would have hit all the Sunday morning television shows to rant about this punk if he lived today, showed up where Buddha was staying to make his opinions known. He was so incensed with Buddha that when he saw him, he called him every name he could think of — Thief! Crackpot! Donkey! Sound familiar?
Buddha heard him out. After a couple of quiet moments he asked the Brahmin if he ever invited friends to his house for dinner. He did. And what did he do with the leftover food? Bharadvaja answered that he kept the food for himself.
Buddha’s response? “It is just the same with abuse. I don’t accept it, and it returns to you.”
In two sentences, he gave all of us a way out of the mean-spiritedness of election years. We don’t need to welcome it into our minds. Instead, we get to let people keep it for themselves.
This is a gift that works really well when we find ourselves caught in the melodrama of everyday life, where mean-spirited moments have a way of surfacing in spite of ourselves. When we’re accused of making a mistake that we’ve honestly made — and no one is safe here — we can eat the blame. In other words, we can admit to the mistake and clean up after ourselves. Simple and speedy. On the other hand, if we are accused of something that just isn’t true — unless we’re talking libel, where it is wise to invite the bodhisattvas of the courts to get involved — we get to let the accuser keep the accusation, just like Bharadvaja’s food. So when my son, in the throes of his own family’s melodrama, shows up to tell me that grandparents should take care of their grandkids so they don’t have to go to daycare, I let him keep his opinion on his side of the table. I see plenty of his son, Beau, and Beau sees plenty of me. When my partner is angered by the sheer stupidity that comes out of the mouths of some of the presidential candidates, I get his anger. But he gets to keep it on his side of the table too. Even so, I, for one, will be thrilled to wave hello to 2013. It can’t get here a moment too soon.